Worth a closer look: The art of science

The Wellcome Trust has put a stunning series of electron microscope images in a gallery show. Can science truly be art? Tom Lubbock trains his eye
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The Independent Culture

Science and art once held hands. Robert Hooke, 17th century pioneer of microscopy, did a beautiful picture of a flea, enormously magnified, that is a classic of English draughtsmanship.

The scientist-illustrators in the tenth Wellcome Image Awards are generally photographers. The camera, at least, provides most of their material. Still, they can't help being artists too. However functional their illustrations are, function will not dictate every decision.

The need for informativeness and clarity only goes so far. There will always be some freedom of operation. There'll be a choice about colour, or shaping, or framing. Choice can't be avoided.

Now some of these Wellcome images are simply representational. You can see what they're meant to be. And some of them are jokey sci-fi fantasies. But the interesting ones, the ones I'm talking about, are those that you can't clearly identify by eye. They're of something, some biological entity, but you can't tell what. You're presented with (so to speak) an "anonymous" image.

These images don't properly belong to any genre. You can look at them partly as pure abstractions. You can look at them partly as "cloud pictures" (ie you can find all sorts of likenesses in them). And the scientist-illustrators who made them are no doubt aware – subliminally at least – of these possibilities. But whatever we call these pictures, are they any good?

Colour is where they fall down chiefly. Of course, clear contrasts are often needed, to distinguish one element from another. But there needn't be so many lurid reds and oranges and purples. There needn't be so many saturated hues. Differences can be done in other ways.

Composition is another area of weakness. The obvious fault is uniformity. You get a field of more or less the same kind of stuff. It may be fine for a screen saver, not for a lively picture.

But art works tend to generate the standards by which you judge them. You look at them, and see the kind of things that they're good at, and then you look out for the ones that are really good at that. So it's probably better not to worry about colour and composition.

Where the world of microbiology excels is in unpredictable forms and textures, ungraspable complications. For example, the solar embroidery of In Vitro Fertilisation, and the vortices of Compact Bone, are certainly interesting formations. And the electric wiggles of Sensory Nerve Fibres make an utterly mysterious "drawing". You have no idea what it could be, by whom or what it was made, or why.

But with all these images, there is a subtext too. What looks quasi-abstract is in fact definitely representational of something quite else. And the puzzling question – it arises in art galleries too – is this: do you look at the caption? Do you find out what these weird patterns really are?

When you do find out, it always makes a difference. For instance, one of the Wellcome images looks like a large spiral earthwork made out of plasticine. You then learn that it represents Aspirin Crystals. It makes you feel rather strangely, either about this earthwork formations or about aspirins.

But the effect isn't always so innocent. It can be severely ironic or worse. It's like that thing in the Turner Prize: a buff-coloured sculpture is revealed to be made of mashed cows' brains. What the caption tells you can alter your view of the work radically.

What looks harmless may turn out to be very menacing. Lung Cancer Cell suggests an exotic salad. Sickle Cell Anaemia is a deep undersea vision. And in last year's prize, C. Difficile appeared looking just like a spilt portion of chips.